Fighting For Recognition: Baltimore’s Overlooked Native Americans

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“The Duality Of Indigeneity” by Gregg Deal, located across from the Creative Alliance.

On a crisp Saturday afternoon last month, nearly 100 people gathered at the Salvation Army in Middle River for a Christmas party. Children lined up in the gym to take part in a time-honored tradition: Sitting on Santa’s lap in front of a Christmas tree.

But a different scene with pre-Western roots unfolded in an opposite corner. There, an elderly man wearing a feathered headdress sat banging on a drum and singing. A small circle composed of several generations and tribes of American Indians formed around him for a casually ceremonious activity known as social dancing. Side by side, the adults danced and laughed while children scurried between them.

Maryann Robins, a member of the Onondaga Nation, was part of a group that drove down from Pennsylvania to the outskirts of Baltimore that afternoon. “Native people like to get together with their own people,” she said. “It’s at these events that we get to do that, because we may not see them at any other time.”

A group gathers for music and singing at LifeLines’ Christmas party in Middle River.

The gathering was made possible by Native American LifeLines, one of only two nonprofits serving Native Americans in Baltimore. LifeLines, founded in 2000, provides health care services and other cultural programs for Natives. The group has centers in both Baltimore and Boston. The other local organization, the Baltimore American Indian Center (BAIC) in Upper Fells Point, has provided cultural programs and events for Native Americans since 1968.

Both groups work to promote Native American pastimes and educate others about their culture. However, LifeLines stands apart as the only group in the Mid-Atlantic region that belongs to the federal Indian Health Service’s (IHS) Urban Indian Health Programs network, which provides health care services to Natives living in and around American cities.

Roots of the Local Native American Population

The two organizations serve the 25,000-strong Native American population in Baltimore City and the six surrounding counties. Around 6,500 Natives live in the city, more than 7,000 in Baltimore County and around 5,100 in Anne Arundel County, according to 2015 U.S. Census estimates. The rest live in Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne’s Counties. (These figures don’t include indigenous-identifying people who don’t fall under the umbrella of “American Indian.”)

Baltimore has lured Natives from the eastern United States for more than a century. Kerry Hawk Lessard, executive director at LifeLines, said her family belongs to the Shawnee tribe and came to Baltimore with a wave of others in the early 1900s in search of work on the railroads, ultimately settling in what became Hollins Market. Pigtown, known then known as “Billy Town,” was another early hub for Appalachian tribes like the Shawnee, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw tribes, Lessard said.

In the 1950s, the federal government pushed Natives to assimilate into the United States, urging them to leave their reservations for urban centers with more available jobs. Under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, the government paid for moving costs and vocational training for those who moved to designated cities. The ensuing migration drastically raised the proportion of Natives living in urban areas.

While Baltimore wasn’t one of the designated cities, its industrial strength made it attractive to Natives looking for a place to resettle. Many took jobs with Bethlehem Steel, General Motors and other factories that were thriving at that point in the mid-19th century, Lessard said. That second migratory wave included Mohawk, Seneca, and Cayuga – members of the Iroquois Confederacy in the Northeast – as well as Lumbee people who came up from North Carolina.

Many of the city’s Native Americans lived in East Baltimore during that time, according to BAIC board member Dellie James. The ample green space in Patterson Park made the area particularly attractive to the Lumbee settlers, she said.

“For many of them coming from North Carolina, that was like a memory of home to have large, open space in the middle of the city,” explained James, a Quaker who is also a clerk for the Homewood/Stony Run Quaker Meetings Indian Affairs joint committee.

When industry declined during the second part of the 20th century, many of the Iroquois families went back home to their reservations while their Lumbee counterparts remained here, James said. Over time, the population shifted geographically as rising living costs in Baltimore City gradually pushed families out toward Dundalk, Middle River and other parts of eastern Baltimore County.

Though American Indians make up a small share of Baltimore’s overall population – around one percent, by U.S. Census estimates – the city represents something of a gathering point for Natives from around the region. Jennifer Eaglewood, a member of the Blackfeet Nation who lives outside Philadelphia, said Baltimore today is “more of a melting pot of Indians.” Eaglewood moved off of her reservation in Browning, Mont., in the late 1990s to attend Drexel University and has remained outside of Philly with her family.

Despite living two hours away, she said she comes to Baltimore frequently.

“Unfortunately, in my area, it’s very hard to find a Native community,” Eaglewood explained. “Sometimes we would go over to New Jersey, but it’s not as welcoming or open as Baltimore…You have people from all over the country that just kind of settled this way.”

Native American LifeLines executive director Kerry Hawk Lessard speaks with a staff member in her office.

Health Challenges

Regarding public health, the modern American Indian has been dealt a bad hand. Along with well-documented problems with substance abuse, mental health, and sexually transmitted diseases, there exists an entrenched feeling of apprehension toward dealing with the bureaucratic U.S. health care system.

The IHS offers Natives access to most or all general health care services on tribal reservations, but everything changes when they step outside those borders.

“When you leave your reservation, it’s like this magic spell is broken and you no longer have access to services that are guaranteed to you under your treaty,” Lessard said.

In the general population, Natives must turn to the local health care system, which often leaves them feeling alienated.

“If you’re a federally recognized Native and you move into urban America, Indian Health Services will not cover you, so you’re at the mercy of the health care system in existence, which is already burdened with others who can’t afford health care,” said Robins, a career nurse. As a result, “Natives are usually at the bottom of the barrel.”

From its small office, LifeLines does what it can to help Natives who seek out care. While the group doesn’t offer a full suite of services available at a reservation hospital, it does provide clients with dental care every week, offers individual and group-based behavioral health treatment and has substance-abuse prevention and education, trauma support, outreach referral and other preventative care.

Robins, who is also president of the Circle Legacy Center in East Petersburg, Pa., noted that because the group is part of the IHS system, clients don’t have to be wary of using private insurance or worry about behind-the-scenes billing and reimbursement. “This opens up an avenue where they can go get the services that are much needed without the bureaucratic tape,” she said.

Many Natives still prefer not to deal with the health system altogether, opting instead to return to reservations to obtain care, Lessard said. Unfortunately for mid-Atlantic dwellers, the closest reservation hospitals are in New York or North Carolina. That geographic isolation leaves a coverage gap that LifeLines seeks to help fill.

Native American LifeLines at 106 W. Clay Street.


LifeLines has a targeted mission and plenty of demand for its services. But Lessard said her organization’s work fighting broader Native public health issues locally can be hindered by poor oversight. Much of the problem stems from paperwork, specifically “the box” on public agency forms that ask clients to identify their race or ethnicity.

While some local agencies, such as the Baltimore Police Department, have forms that offer a designated space for “Native American/Alaska Native,” their demographics isn’t always given this option. It’s not uncommon for “other” to be their only choice, and when another party is identifying them without asking them, Natives can be incorrectly marked down as being of a different race depending on their complexion, Lessard said.

Mary Bass, 65, a Lumbee-Cherokee Native living in South Baltimore, said she experienced this problem when she moved up from North Carolina in 1984. Bass said that while living in public housing in the city, the administering agency, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, identified her for years as black. “I had to go get my tribal card to let them know that I was an Indian,” she said.

“It’s overlooked,” Bass said of the issue of misidentification. “We’re not recognized.”

A spokeswoman for the Housing Authority said the agency doesn’t have any records regarding Bass’ claim. She noted that the agency’s forms today do allow applicants to check “American Indian” when applying for public housing.

Dr. Patrick Chaulk, the assistant commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department’s Bureau of HIV/STD Services, said health clinic intake forms at one point offered only “other” as the designation for those who identify as Native Americans. However, after working with LifeLines and getting community input, the department added “Native American/Alaska Native” as an option and even identified five common Baltimore-area tribes to list as subsets, Chaulk said.

When agencies misidentify Native Americans in the system, it can weaken public policy efforts targeting their demographic. Lessard, who is also a medical anthropologist studying Native populations, referenced a past meeting of the Mayor’s HIV Planning Group, of which Chaulk is a co-chair. The body describes itself as “the official HIV prevention planning body for the City of Baltimore.”

Lessard said at one meeting in late 2015, she asked a visiting Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene epidemiologist how the agency could capture HIV/AIDS data specific to Native Americans and Alaska Natives. His response, she said, was that the numbers for Natives “are so small that they don’t matter.”

Based on available statistics, it did indeed appear as though there weren’t any recent new cases of HIV among American Indians in the city, she said. “I know that’s not true because I am working with those people,” Lessard said. “I know the data is incorrect.”

Chaulk said the Baltimore City Health Department recorded only one new Native American HIV infection in the city in 2015 and had only eight infections among Natives in total for that year. But he too has his doubts. “We don’t think that’s the real number in that community. That’s just the number we know,” he said.

The health department has been working with LifeLines to get more Natives tested, Chaulk said. For the past two years, Health Commissioner Leana Wen has spoken at LifeLines’ HIV/AIDS Awareness Day and has sent staff to test Native residents at the event.

“We recognize that we haven’t done a good enough job of collecting data,” Chaulk said. “We’re doing testing to create the data to drive those programs. That’s why we’re focusing on this community now.”

In order to obtain grants from federal agencies, Lessard has to show data to make her case. “I need the numbers, and ‘other’ doesn’t do that,” she said. “If we’re trying to approach the problem of addressing HIV in Baltimore City…not even having a handle on how many people are impacted in the Native community – how can you build a public health policy around that?”

Feeling Ignored

In 2015, Baltimore became a living forum for the debate about racial tensions in America after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody. During the ensuing unrest, as local leaders and national pundits alike homed in on issues of racial relations and police treatment of African-Americans, the conversation largely left Natives out of the picture. That’s a familiar feeling, said Jess McPherson, fiscal manager at LifeLines.

Others agree. Emmy Jones, a 26-year-old Baltimore-born Cherokee now living in Dundalk, said at the Christmas party, “It basically was about the blacks and the whites. It had nothing to do with us.”

Lessard and McPherson said a large number of area Natives with whom they interact felt resentful during the riots. Much of this feeling was caused by deep-rooted tensions dating back to well before slavery, when colonial settlers violently took Natives’ land and threatened their existence with forced migrations and assimilation campaigns. Watching Baltimore’s African-Americans lash out against a white-controlled system was understandable, but the protests made them feel left out, Lessard said.

Natives have made some recent progress in gaining recognition from the rest of the city. This past fall, Councilman Brandon Scott proposed a measure that would rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples and Italian-Americans Day. While his proposal didn’t pass, it shed light on a major concern for Natives: honoring an explorer who terrorized their ancestors by giving him a national holiday. The effort received a very public boost from activists, and Scott said after the measure failed that he expects the issue to resurface in the new council term.

The controversy over the Dakota Access Pipeline, which was set to be built on sacred Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands in North Dakota, has drawn support from Baltimore activists. The day after Thanksgiving, a diverse group comprising Natives, indigenous-identifying people, black, white and Hispanic Baltimoreans and others marched to the Wells Fargo building downtown to protest the bank’s financing of Energy Transfer Partners, the developer behind the controversial project. Police arrested six people for trespassing after they locked themselves in the lobby.

McPherson and Lessard said LifeLines never heard from the organizers before the protest and subsequent lock-in. Georgia McCandlish, a spokesperson for the activist collective that organized the demonstration, said they instead connected with BAIC members to organize the Nov. 25 protest. Several of the organizers themselves were Natives and indigenous-identifying people, she noted.

The Baltimore American Indian Center at 113 S. Broadway.

“It’s not that we purposefully excluded anyone,” said Juan Ortiz, one of the protest organizers. “We feel we sent out the invitation as broadly as possible and we worked directly with the groups who responded most, and that included members of the BAIC, Casa de Maryland, D.C. Stands with Standing Rock and Latinx indigenous communities.”

McCandlish also said activists raised money at the event to fund a trip for several BAIC members and Ortiz to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation the following week.

In early December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners the permit for construction of the pipeline through the reservation. However, President-elect Donald Trump, who until recently owned stock in the company, has indicated he would like to follow through on the oil pipeline project. William Buzbee, a Georgetown Law professor specializing in environmental and administrative law, told ABC News Trump could pursue alternative routes for construction once the Army completes an environmental impact assessment, ask the Army to re-examine its decision or work with Congress to “carve out a protection for it.”

As a result, protests around the country have continued. The most recent high-profile one happened last Sunday in Minneapolis, when two activists unfurled a banner during a Vikings-Bears football game at U.S. Bank Stadium. The banner read “Divest #NoDAPL” and was directed at the namesake for the stadium, a Minneapolis-based firm that, like Wells Fargo, is financing the pipeline project.

Lessard noted that LifeLines has developed a relationship with some non-Native advocates, namely Maryland Stands with Standing Rock. “They really sought our input,” she said. “They really been the only [group] led by non-Native people that have reached out locally.”

A mural outside the Baltimore American Indian Center Museum.

Looking Ahead

There’s no Native American neighborhood in Baltimore today. In fact, some Natives argue there’s no real sense of unity at all. “The Indians don’t stick together,” Bass said. “We’ve gotta stick together. We’ve gotta fight for what we want.”

Lessard is aware of that communal apathy shared by some. “People don’t want to work together to make things better,” she said. “That comes out of the poverty, the substance abuse, the interfamilial dynamics…there can be really longstanding issues.”

It’s in no small part because of LifeLines and the BAIC that Baltimore-area Natives even have regular opportunities to convene. While the former hosts the Christmas party, a post-Thanksgiving feast, the HIV/AIDS Awareness Day gathering and its regular monthly and weekly events, the latter has its annual Pow-wow celebrating Native culture and other more frequent programs at its museum and center on S. Broadway.

For LifeLines to broaden its work and reach more Natives, the group needs to work with “all stakeholders in the American Indian community,” including the BAIC, Lessard said.

The organizations don’t have a working relationship, despite the fact that they have similar missions. (Members of both groups declined to discuss their history on the record; BAIC board president Linda Cox declined to be quoted at all for this story.)

Still, Lessard said there’s room for a potential collaboration. “I am very hopeful that we can do more collaborative works [with BAIC],” Lessard said. “I don’t know how they feel about that…but there are people there that I consider to be my friends.”

More concretely, LifeLines also needs more money expand its outreach, Lessard said. Some of that could come from the top down. According to the National Congress of American Indians, the largest national body representing tribal interests, less than one percent of the IHS budget goes to urban Indian health programs. This isn’t the right approach, Lessard said, given that seven in 10 Natives today live in urban areas rather than on reservations, according to Census data.

“The money is not following the people,” she said.

Eaglewood said Natives in other cities would be fortunate to have a group like LifeLines there to help them.

“If there were more places like Lifelines in other states, it’d just be a no-brainer,” she said. “It’s a hidden gem that most people don’t know about. Most urban Indian people have no clue that LifeLines exists.”

Ethan McLeod
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